When an acquisitions editor gets a gut feeling from a manuscript in her slush pile.

When an acquisitions editor gets a gut feeling from a manuscript in her slush pile.Talking to Martha Ashby, UK HarperCollins’ Editorial Director, about the first time she picked up Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

How did Martha Ashby know? When she fished this year’s UK Number One Seller, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, from the slush pile? How did she know that out of dozens of manuscripts on her desk, this story would trump them all?

‘It was Gail’s sense of voice that spoke to me immediately. I felt as though a real woman had sat down next to me and started to tell me about her life,’ said Martha when I spoke to her at this year’s Art of Writing summer retreat.

‘Within a very short time, maybe the first page, I knew this book was going to reach people’s hearts.’ Martha Ashby is an unassuming woman in publishing. She’s young, fresh faced and easy going, and her job is to read, choose and bid for manuscripts that could potentially turn over millions for HarperCollins. She definitely hit the jackpot with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

When an acquisitions editor gets a gut feeling from a manuscript in her slush pile.
(left to right) Martha Ashby, Lisa Clifford, Jane Corry, and Matthew Ferrara at The Art of Writing.

‘I know if I love a book very quickly. I always know very soon. People get quite concerned about the question of whether or not you like the protagonist. That question is often discussed. But Eleanor spoke to me. She was funny, full of quirks and faults but I loved her. And that’s really what it was all about. I simply fell in love with this lonely, problem-filled but funny woman. I knew that I would bid for the rights for this book and was so relieved when we secured Gail.’

When an acquisitions editor gets a gut feeling from a manuscript in her slush pile.‘We only take on about two to five new writers a year. Maybe in a really good year we would take on eight. Gail had never published anything before. We have a lot of established writers we have to take care of, so we are careful taking on new writers.’

I always feel honoured interviewing people like Martha Ashby. The people whose tastes and judgements dictate what we read. I recorded Martha’s comments on Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine during the 2017 and 2018 Art of Writing in Florence, when she was our guest in-house editor. In 2017 Martha was editing the book, getting it ready with her team for publication. In 2018 it was on sale. During the two years Martha was with The Art of Writing, she listened with patience and care to each of our writer’s pitches individually and privately.

With luck, and hard work, maybe one of our writers will be next on her bid list. Keep writing, keep working and keep hoping.

When an acquisitions editor gets a gut feeling from a manuscript in her slush pile.Read The Bookseller’s take on Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine:

Gail Honeyman’s standout debut Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (HarperCollins) has been named Book of the Year at The British Book Awards.

The judges praised both the writing and the publishing of Honeyman’s debut, and said the combination made it a clear winner. The novel was “absolutely hilarious”, “literary and commercial” and struck an “amazing balance between light and dark”, while the campaign to promote it was “beautifully done”, they said.

HarperFiction acquired Eleanor Oliphant on the eve of the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair in an eight-way auction and straight away decided that they would make 2017 “the year of the Oliphant”. Its retail strategy was focused on Waterstones, independents and also Scotland, where the author is based. The title went into the Sunday Times Top 10 before Christmas, with nearly 290,000 copies sold across all formats before paperback publication. The Marketing Strategy behind the book was also recognised at the awards, winning Marketing Strategy of the Year in the trade awards.

I cannot wait to have you at our 2019 June 2-6 Art of Writing retreat

Do you love writing? Would you like to join The Art of Writing team in Florence on June 2-6 2019? Let’s dream, plot, write, learn and grow as writers for a week together.  Email me at lisacliffordwriter@gmail.com so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.

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